INTRODUCTION: Toyah Willcox has had 13 Top 40 hits, recorded 20 albums, appeared in over three dozen plays, has presented TV programmes as diverse as "The Good Sex Guide" and "Songs Of Praise". She continues to perform with her rock band The Humans. Today Toyah shares her musical milestones

TOYAH: Hello! I'm Toyah Willcox and these are my "Musical Milestones". I didn't know I was going to end up as an singer and an actress but what I did know is that I've always loved the extravaganza of the world of showbusiness

When you're a child you don't know how to put that into a dialogue, you don't know how to express that. I was very lucky when I was about 7 years old that I went to a school that taught ballet. Not only taught ballet it actually taught music as well as part of the daily curriculum

In one class I was with my teacher Ms Nelson, she was my music teacher and she was a very special person to me because it didn't matter to her if you showed academic qualities or not and I certainly didn't. It was pretty obvious with me. I was dyslexic and I had a physical disability as well. The lisp, which you can pick up on now, but also I had a limp

Ms Nelson refused to acknowledge that. She saw me as an individual. One day at the beginning of her class she said "we are going to look at (Gustav) Holst's “The Planet Suite” but we're not going to sit there and listen to it . You're all going to dance to it." We cleared the desks to the side of the room and she played the whole of “The Planet Suite

For the first few planets I was thinking “oh, what am I doing, I feel so self-conscious, I don't know what's going on” and then "Mars,The Bringer Of War" started and I entered my element. I danced round the room like a banshee

It was that moment in time I realised music embodies your soul, it embodies your physicality, it embodies your thoughts. This was the moment I knew that my future was going to be in the music business



I hope listening to it you can understand I had my Billy Elliot moment when I first heard that. Just listening to it again I can remember prancing around the room just filled with energy and suddenly understanding music and rhythm and keys and the choice of top lines

I wanted to sing to it but I was only about 7 years old and I didn't have the vocabulary just yet. This was a key moment in my life and ever since that moment right up until now, and now I'm 54, I have just loved dancing to music, free form. After discovering Holt's “Planet Suite” I kind of went onto to listen to things like Tommy Steele "Little White Bull". I can remember the New Seekers being around, I can remember Cliff Richard being particularly famous

I hadn't discovered rock. This was the late 1960s and there was still a massive journey for music to take for my generation. What I mean by that, yes, we had The Beatles, yes, Jimi Hendrix was just starting and my husband Robert Fripp and King Crimson were just starting but I was still young and precious and kept away from that side of music

(BBC) Radio One started around this time and my mother used to drive me to school every morning. Because, to put it bluntly, if she didn't drive me to school I just wouldn't go. I hated school – every minute of it. Eeven though I had wonderful teachers like Ms Nelson I still was still really reluctant to go. I wasn't academic and didn't really fit in

But I remember one morning, we were in my mother's pink Triumph, which had leopard skin seats. It was really the campest thing in Birmingham, which is where I grew up. This next song came on the radio and it was so astonishing, it was so intelligent. Up until this point we had some wonderful basic rock'n'roll music

We had Bill Hailey, we had the magnificence of The Beatles, who wrote the kind of iconic format pop song but this song came along. This song included orchestration, it included incredibly narrative lyrics, it included one of the most stunning voices in the history of modern music

It was an album that I just had to save my pocket money to go and buy. It's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon And Garfunkel. It won a Grammy in 1970 and for me it just went off like a lightbulb in my head when I heard that

Even now, today, when I sometimes get writers block or I sit down to write the best song that's ever been written, I always think about this song and that album and the perfection of it and the effortlessness of that vocal. It's so astonishing. It's like the music of the heavens

If I ever in my lifetime, as a writer, could write a song as good as that I feel I have done something worthwhile with my life. I think every song on
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is utterly magnificent. It's beautifully produced, beautifully written, beautifully performed and I pray to God every night that Simon And Garfunkel will get back together again. It's just one of those albums that spurs you on to look at your future and make your future happen for you. It came at a time between 1970 and 1972


An evolution happened in my generation and within rock'n'roll. That evolution I suppose you could rather rudely call glam rock. I think glam rock kind of underplays the brilliance of the 1970s. Yep, men suddenly decided to wear make up and show their female side but also some of the greatest rock riff's of all time were written in this period. It helped my generation move out of the Cliff Richard phase into this hugely sexually powered decade of almost heavy rock

I was watching Top Of The Pops one day, I think it was 1971. This man came on and he had glitter around his eyes. He was wearing satin clothes. He had corkscrew hair. He was everything that gave my parents nightmares. This man was called Marc Bolan. This is really where my life changed for ever because March Bolan wore who he was on his sleeve. Suddenly music moved into the exhibitionist and that is where I found myself

Being barely 5”1 from Birmingham I realised that if I was to make my mark in music I had to be an exhibitionist and then I had to be a singer almost secondary. I saw Marc Bolan on this spring evening and I thought "that's it! That's how I'm going to do it." And the song that did for me was T-Rex and "Ride A White Swan"

This was my first realisation that rock had no boundaries. This album made me want to be a rock star. I say that because I mean it in the X-Factor sense of being a rock star. I wasn't interested in the hard work and learning how to play an instrument and learning how to write songs. I wanted immediate gratification. That's something I learned to get over in the long term. Remember I have been in the business now for 32 years

An another interesting thing about this period was it was men in make up. Up until that point as a girl from Birmingham I'd always seen men as rather bullish creatures who told you what you wanted to do, what you wanted to say, how you should think, how you should dance, what you should wear

Suddenly men were discovering a more ambiguous side of themselves. I suppose you could say they were discovering their femininity. What I really enjoyed was the ambiguity that you never really knew what was going on. I was teenager during this period, I was 14 years old so I didn't really have boyfriends. I grew up in a culture where boyfriends weren't encouraged

I wanted a career, I was completely focused. I was not going to get lost in a world of fantasising about boys. I had a poster of Marc Bolan on the ceiling above my bed. What else do you need? Very young teenagers would go and scream at him. I did too. I even got detention at school for dressing like him and going to see a concert when I shouldn't. He was great. He made David Bowie possible. And here was my next crush


Except it was more than a crush. It was someone that introduced a lifestyle. The lifestyle was that you dress like David Bowie, you walk the streets of Birmingham dressed like David Bowie. You followed other people, especially men, if they were dressed like David Bowie. This was a sexual awakening for me

This song was a rite passage, the track "Life On Mars", which I think everyone will agree with me is one of most brilliantly penned songs of all time. It's one of the most remarkable pieces of songwriting I have ever heard. I decided to choose this song to do my first professional audition. It was for a production on BBC2, a series called “Second City First”

These were half hour plays produced to showcase new scriptwriters. My scriptwriters were two brothers called the Bicat brothers. One was a scriptwriter, the other was a music writer. They asked to see me because they'd heard about this strange girl walking the streets of Birmingham, who had green and yellow hair, pink and blue hair. I was doing this long before punk. It was 1973 and they asked me to come down to London and audition for them for a play called "Glitter"

I walked into Whitmore Hall where the auditions were being held and there in the room was an actor called Phil Daniels, who I knew nothing about and I certainly didn't know that I'd bump into him many times in the future to come. Phil was there with his guitar and I said I would like to sing “Life On Mars”. I was trembling from head to toe and I sang the song really badly. But the song took me over and I got the job

Life was never the same again. I have sung that song ever since at really important auditions. This song always prequels success for me. I just love it to death. I suppose it's a song I listen to if I'm a little bit down or the song I listen to when I really want to connect to my emotions

It's just a song that opens up the doors of perception for me. I think really good music does that. When “Glitter” showed on TV about three months later I was invited to join the National Theatre. By this time it was 1976. It was Christmas, just going into the New Year of 1977. I joined the National Theatre, I was 18, I was the youngest member of the company

I was being a young person living life to the full. When you're having success like this time moves really quickly. Back then in the 1980s you actually had to release two albums a year. No one took a year off. No one thought “oh well, I'll release an album every spring.” It was a production line and it actually started to get harder and harder to keep the quality up and keep going

So I started to lose myself quite happily in acting. I needed to go away and refresh myself and refresh the soul. People often say to me “what happened to you, where did you go in the late 80s?” Well, actually, I was touring "The Taming Of The Shrew" to huge acclaim. My critiques were enormous. I was selling out theatres across the land


Then 1991 came along and I found it a very difficult year. I broke up with old management. There was a huge recession. Anyone who was an adult in this period will remember it was one of the biggest recessions we've had. Bigger than what we're going through today. Everyone was bitten by it. I was bitten by it because I had a mortage that went into negative equity

It was really hard earning substantial money that was just falling into this black hole. I'd never been through a drama like this before and I was having management trouble. They embezzled money I was earning and I owed money  to a bank and I didn't know how to deal with it. Back then when I was just 30 I really was at an all-time low. I had to let go of everything. I had to go into hell, I had to descend into hell before I knew I had to fight and get back out of it. I think anyone's who's been there will understand what I'm talking about

You have to hit rock bottom before you realise that if you don't do something about it you'll never bounce back. The song that punctuated the moment I realised I had to fight back is Shakespeare's Sister's "Stay"

1991 was easily the saddest and unhappiest time of my life for many reasons. This song punctuated this. But out of extreme pain came the will to fight and the will to succeed. If I hadn't experienced such a hard year I wouldn't be where I am today and I like where I am today. If you ask me what rock bottom feels like it is the trampoline from which you bounce back

In 1991 I went off travelling. I felt I had to find myself. A phone call came in from a woman called Cookie. Cookie was married to Tommy Vance, the DJ. She said to me “Toyah, do you want to come back to England – you've been asked to present a show called “First Night”. You probably don't want to do it, I just thought I should run it by you so you know” and I said “yeah! I'll some back. I fancy a bit of presenting”

It's really weird, I can say this having lived for five decades, that opportunity presents itself to you in the strangest form. Cookie really didn't want me to take that job. Not in a negative way, she just thought “nah, she won't be interested”. That job changed my life for the next decade and it brought me back onto my feet and I had the most fantastic decade. It was so happy

I ended up presenting "Watchdog Health Check" and "Holiday" for the BBC. Boy did I have fun! I even ended up in the same year presenting "Songs Of Praise" and "The Good Sex Guide Late" (below) That's how diverse my life came. 1990s for me was the decade of presenting. After that decade interestingly the presenting stopped. The way my career in the 1980s stopped. And you'll never guess what came back? 

I ended up touring my 80s music in stadiums because a fax came through one day in 2001 from a promoter saying "how would you like to go on the road with Adam Ant, Kim Wilde, Banarama, Belinda Carlisle, Nick Heyward?" I thought “I don't believe it! I've gone full circle!” 

Ever since 2002 I've been playing in arenas, stadiums and theatres. Selling them out, having a fantastic time. I've even written new music. I've had new albums out. I've starred in a film called “Power Of Three”. I've formed a band, which is an art project, with the drummer from R.E.M called The Humans. Life has got better and better

As a songwriter I still need inspiration and I still look to other artists and listen to how they write and the choices they make as a writer with melodies and with words. I'd like to play to you now a track that represents to me today what "Mars The God Of War" Holt's "Planet Suite" represented to me as a seven year old. This is the version in this century. It's Muse and "Super Massive Black Hole"

Muse are one of my favourite bands of all time and I can hear every artist who's ever influenced me in what they do today. It's wonderful to know that music continues to influence generation after generation after generation. 

I hope you've enjoyed my "Musical Milestones". I'm Toyah Willcox and hope I've let you learn a little bit about me. Goodbye and enjoy yourselves! 


Post a Comment

<< Home